The Afghan

It was an oddly sunny day in Dortmund. Odd, becuase this part of northwestern Germany is not known for many sunny days – much less one in the middle of February. Nonetheless, it was a perfect match for my mood. My significant other had returned from a long stay in India, supporting family through a time of personal loss. Work had meant I could not stay as long as I would have liked, returning a few weeks earlier. Now, having dealt with the loss, mourned and obtained some closure, we were ready to move on. For me, her return marked the end of a distracted limbo immersed in work, but feeling like I was drowned in it.

I digress. I picked her up from the airport nearby, and after a short train ride, arrived in Dortmund. We decided to take a cab home – the Dortmund underground was afflicted by growing pains. The City council’s motivation and foresight to upgrade the transport infrastructure was commendable, but today was not a day to deal with stalled carriages and detours and delays. So despite half-hearted protests from the money-saving gremlin that periodically overcomes my significant other, we walked towards the taxi stand and approached the first beige Volkswagen in the queue. 

The cab driver was a pleasant experience from the start – short and stockily built, clean-shaven but with a face so non-descript that I am hardpressed to remember a single feature that stood out. He would be a caricaturist’s nightmare. But he offered to load in our rather heavy piece of luggage inspite of my warnings. He must have seen the airline tag on the luggage, because the first question he asked as he slid into the driver’s seat was “Are you coming from India?”

Looking back to ensure my exhausted significant other was in her seat, I replied in the affirmative, and quickly added our destination – perhaps too quickly, betraying my anxiousness to get home. But he was unfazed, immediately plunging into a conversation about Bollywood actors and films. I did not have the heart to tell him that most of these films and actors he was talking about were made before I was born, and I was no connoisseur of Bollywood films. We made some banter about which actors were still living – Amitabh Bachchan was mentioned for his septuagenarian productivity, and Rekha was deified with a slightly pained reference to her childlessness. He had learned to understand some Hindi just by watching movies, but could not speak it. Just to divert the conversation, I asked him where he was from.

Afghanistan – that landlocked piece of land as ancient as my own country. The region that is modern day Afghanistan has a long standing association with India. One of two major epics of India , the Mahabharata written in the 4th century BCE contains the prominent character of Gandhari – a princess, wife of Dritharashtra, and mother of the Kauravas. Gandhari translates to “from Gandhar”, which exists on modern day maps as “Kandahar”. Mythological mentions aside, Afghanistan was an important fork in the Silk Road – continue west through the Wakhjir Pass, and you would encounter the silk and ceramic of China. Continue south through the Khyber pass, and you could enter the fertile fields, metallurgical prowess and mathematical philosophies of the Indian sub-continent. Afghanistan lay at the doorway to the two largest civilizations and cultures of the ancient world.

I asked him if he spoke Pashtu or Dari. “Dari”, he said, adding that it was “just Farsi in disguise”. I chuckled under my breadth.  They are mutually intelligible sister languages , dialects even. But Farsi and Dari speakers have developed a contentious relationship in recent years. Calling their dialect of the language Dari, rather than Farsi is one of the ways modern nationalist Afghans distinguish themselves from the Iranians. Either by choice or due to ignorance, our taxi driver seemed oblivious to this fundamentalism. He was no nationalist, clearly.

He jumped back to the Bollywood films, mentioning that he had seen all these movies only as a boy. Growing up, he went to the Soviet Union to get himself an education. It struck me that he was the outcome of Soviet Cold War expansionism in Afghanistan. He had learned to speak, read and write Russian – fluently enough to use the language as a medium for higher education. And all this while, he had pined for the Bollywood movies.

Bollywood movies were difficult to access in the Soviet Union, he told me, and left it at that. I knew this. Despite Russia’s close political ties to India, the Soviets worked hard to keep any nasty Indian Socialist Democratic ideas from taking root in the populations of Russia’s satellite states in the Soviet Union. It was common in that era for Bollywood movies to depict the poor hardworking factory worker forming labour unions to strike against the big bad and rich management. The labour unions would demand better pay and rights. And India was still a member of the Commonwealth then, with strong cultural influences from its British colonial past from just 30 years ago. Western culture and affinity to it was still considered a mark of modernism and sophistication – something to aspire to. This was worse than anathema to the Soviet Politburo, who were trying as hard as they could to homogenize the Soviet Union into a communist haven.

So it came to be, that despite having gained access to the vast cultural and literary treasures afforded by the Russian language, our taxi driver missed the exported culture of another foreign land.

In an exhausted haze, my significant other suggested Netflix to catch up and relive the experience of these movies from his childhood. I sensed though that the man was steeped in nostalgia and barely heard her. He made no response to the effective technological solution that had popped from the backseat. Instead, he simply continued telling us how he had then travelled to East Germany and after the re-unification, preferred to drive taxis in the industrial dystopia of the Ruhrgebiet. His description of this journey came with the same non-chalance with which he asked me which side of the street he should halt. Our ride was coming to an end.

He replied “Bahut bahut Shukriya” when I paid him with a small tip, a Hindi phrase of thanks that he had undoubtedly learned from the Bollywood movies. It occurred to me that this man’s life was shaped by the geopolitics of the Cold War, carrying him across three political boundaries and many more cultural ones. Yet, the fiction of Bollywood movies was dearer to him to him than the cold reality of a Soviet education. Amitabh and Rekha’s contrived enactments were more enchanting than Khruschev’s promise of a Marxian paradise.

Perhaps the Soviets did not need to send battle tanks to Afghanistan – a film crew might have sufficed. The Soviets struggled for twenty weary years to win Afghanistan. India, without trying, had won an Afghan in a matter of hours.

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